January 25, 2016
Generalizations are the hobgoblins of little minds, but nevertheless, I’ll make one: The vast majority of mystery readers cut their sleuthing-teeth on either Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes or the Nancy Drew series, the first volume of which – The Secret of the Old Clock – was published in 1930 (making Nancy – with her roadster and her neat bob – the very model of the Golden Age heroine). True Nancy-ites (Drew-ids?) know that, beginning in about 1959, the series was rewritten, ostensibly to get rid of racist language and bring the books “up to date.” Unfortunately, “up to date” went hand in hand with “dumbed down”; the language of the rewritten books is noticeably more simplistic and less nuanced.
Nor do the changes stop there. As Cara Nicoletti notes in her irresistible new collection of essays Voracious: A Hungry Reader Cooks Her Way Through Great Books, the Nancy of the early editions is much less compulsively perfect, and considerably more approachable. But the weirdest change has to do with Nancy’s pal Bess, who makes her debut in Book 5 of the series, The Secret at Shadow Ranch. In the rewritten edition, Bess is introduced as “slightly plump,” and this description “precedes her name in nearly every sentence for the remainder of the book,” according to Nicoletti. Furthermore, she is forever being taunted about her weight, mostly by her skinny cousin George, who has morphed from a goofy tomboy in the original version into a bona-fide Mean Girl. George is “always drawing attention to how much Bess has eaten,” says Nicoletti, “while Nancy giggles demurely in the background.” “Eating is really a very fattening hobby, dear cousin,” smirks George, smugly sipping a soft drink while Bess prepares to dive into a chocolate sundae with nuts.
But, says Nicoletti, “in the original Secret at Shadow Ranch, there is no mention of Bess’s weight.” In fact, she is described as being “noted for always doing the correct thing” and for being prettier and better dressed than George. Nicoletti’s literary analysis, throughout the essays, is clever and engaging, but she doesn’t offer any theories as to why a virulent vein of fat-shaming should have been inserted into a book that is otherwise about three teenage girls solving crimes. On the other hand, she does offer a swell-looking recipe for a double-chocolate sundae with nuts, and many readers will regard that as more than a fair trade-off.